Sunday, March 31, 2013


Last week, Katie reserved Joel Salatin's 'You Can Farm' from the local library.  It has been a very interesting read, a tremendous distraction from doing real work, and we'll probably post a favorable review on here before long.  One thing that surprised us is Salatin's recommendation to not acquire a piece of land as one of the first steps in your farming life unless you already have two things: experience on a farm and sufficient funds to live on for several years while your farm goes through the growing pains of becoming profitable.  In fact, it seems that in his opinion, prior farm experience is the most important descriptor of a new farmer's success.

So, how then to acquire said experience?  The most obvious--and possibly convenient--way would be to approach farmers in your area who do the kind of farming you're interested in (vegetables, dairy, pork, fiber, etc.) and ask if you can volunteer.  It's possible to learn quite a bit by spending an hour or two per day at an endeavor, especially if you can do it year-round and see the operation through all the seasons.  However, it doesn't really give the kind of immersive experience that would seemingly be most helpful when starting your own farm.  Unfortunately, you're probably not going to find many farmers willing to bring you on board for an around-the-clock agricultural crash course...unless...there were some kind of organization set up for the sole purpose of facilitating that kind of connection...

A fun logo for WWOOF.  We found it at Veni Vidi Vici.

Enter WWOOF (World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Started in the UK in the 1970s to introduce new farmers to organic growing methods, WWOOF has since expanded to encompass the whole globe and offers thousands of locations for motivated (but often inexperienced) farmers to learn the trade in a live-in setting.  Host farms in the WWOOF program range from urban farms to homesteads so remote they can only be reached by bush plane.  The idea is that WWOOFers travel to the host farm (WWOOFees?), stay there for a period of time (two weeks to several months), learn some skills while helping their hosts, and then move on.  No money is exchanged between WWOOFers and WWOOFees, but the hosts typically provide a room and meals.  However, since most countries have restrictions about foreigners coming temporarily just to work or volunteer, it's important to note that the experience is supposed to be mainly a visit/vacation with no formal labor arrangements.

Raspberries on a WWOOF farm in Australia.  This is one of the only WWOOF-related photos in the Wikimedia Commons, so if you go and take pictures, please post them for bloggers to WWOOF vicariously!  Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The way it works is this: aspiring WWOOFers (that includes us) pay a reasonable membership fee upfront to gain access to the database of farmers in a given country.  (You can see locations and snippets of information about each farm beforehand, but to find contact info and in-depth descriptions about what the hosts are looking for, you have to pay the fee).  Membership fees go to maintaining the online database.  Each country operates independently, so if you're a U.S. citizen for example, but want to WWOOF in Canada, get a membership to the Canadian WWOOF database.  Once you can see the database, you call or e-mail farms you're interested in and sort of 'feel out' if the fit would be good (they'll be 'feeling out,' potential WWOOFers, too).  If there's mutual interest, you can work out expectations like length of stay, hours of help per day, type of help needed, etc.

The main downsides are that you're on your own for travel arrangements and that ideal stay times are typically longer than most employed people can afford for vacation.  However, WWOOF recommends that the daily time commitment be in the range of 4-6 hours, so if you have work you can do remotely, you might be able to work out a long-term stay while continuing your normal job duties.

The upside is (in our opinion) huge.  Once you get to your destination, you get free lodging, free meals (probably home-cooked), and a free education in organic agriculture.  You get to see new areas of the world and meet interesting new people.  Plus, you get lots of experience that will be invaluable when you finally decide to put down some roots.

Here's the process we went through, flow-chart style, in case it would be useful to you.  We got to the green square, but haven't gotten our membership (yet).  David Wallinga's TED talk can be found here.

Do you have any experience with WWOOFing?  Do you know of any other similar opportunities?  How have you negotiated the vacation time restrictions with your employer?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Green Onion Powder

Last summer, we had quite a few green onions come out of our garden (more than we were interested in making use of while they were fresh), so we dehydrate a bunch.  We cut them into small sections and set them on the trays, but realized that as 'sections,' we weren't using them up very quickly.  The pieces work fine for casseroles, soups, stews, etc., but not so well for seasoning dishes the way we usually do, by sprinkling the seasonings on.  (We're habitual sprinklers.)  Then we realized that one of our favorite seasonings is onion powder (or granulated onion, depending on what your source calls it).  Now, this is going to seem terribly obvious, but couldn't we just grind up the green onion and use it like onion powder?  Turns out we could (and did), and we love sprinkling it on eggs, toast, steaks...basically anything on which we would normally sprinkle regular white-colored onion powder.  Of course, a quick internet search shows we're not the first ones to think of grinding up our green onions, but since we hadn't heard of it before, we wanted to help spread the word.

One of the green onions in our garden was still kind of a runt at the end of the growing season, so we brought it inside to the aquaponic system, where it flourished.  Just this last week, we finally decided it was time to pick the little guy since he was starting to get a flower bud.  Since we were going to turn it into powder, we thought we'd write about it on here in case anyone wanted to try it with their own green onions!

Here's the fresh starting green onion.  It grew surprisingly well in the aquaponic system, although we're  surprised when anything works around here. :-)
Cut it into pieces large enough that they won't fall through the openings in the dehydrator tray, and dry them for a couple days. 
After the dehydrator, we've found that they're pretty dry, but not quite crispy enough to grind right away.  So we put them in a warm oven for a couple hours (like after we take a loaf of bread out and the oven is cooling down).
Put the ├╝ber-dry pieces in the mortar.  In this case, the whole onion fit at the same time.
Grind it up with the pestle.  It took about 20 seconds to get to this point.  It's hard to see, but some of the onion is a very fine powder and some is still relatively large pieces.
So we normally filter it to collect the fines, and put the big pieces back in the mortar.
Then grind just the big pieces, now that they don't have the little pieces to pad them from the mortar walls.  Bwa ha ha haaa.  We'll get them yet!
Once everything goes through, put the powder in whatever container you're planning to store it in.  If there's a few pieces that still won't go, add them to the leftover Reuben Strata you're about to heat up for supper (or many other kinds of leftovers).  It's interesting that the fresh stuff is a different color than the stuff we made last fall.  We're not sure why--if the other stuff changed color over the last few months, or if the aquaponic onion is actually a different color.  Time will tell!

Have you made green onion powder before?  What's your favorite food to which to add green onion powder?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: Permaculture Chicken - Pasture Basics by Anna Hess

The cover of the e-book.  Reproduced with permission from the author.  Get the book here.
The title says 'Pasture Basics,' and that's pretty much what this book is.  It's short and has lots of pictures, but it gives the basics of setting up a pasture for chickens.  I would have liked to see some more of the information promised in future volumes included here, but I am definitely more impatient than most, especially when it comes to information about chickens.  It would also be nice to have a few more in-line references to some of the studies she mentions and a cumulative list of references at the end. (Anna recommends several good books for further reading, but you'll have to write them down as you read.  Or, see the list below with links.) There.  The only shortcomings are out of the way, so we can get to the fun parts!

Overall, it's a great resource for readers aspiring to set up a homestead-scale free-range chicken operation.  Anna does a great job combining personal experience with outside research in this nice narrative of what goes into a good chicken pasture.  Anna briefly takes you through her early experiments with traditional 'coop and run' chicken systems, chicken tractors, and rotational pastures to motivate why she settled on a rotating pasture system as the model for her homestead.  I don't want to give too much away, but in essence, this arrangement maximizes the multi-functionality of the chickens--healthy meat and eggs, pest control, fertilizing, lawn mowing, and no-till soil preparation--while letting them 'express their chickenness' (to borrow Joel Salatin's phrase) and simultaneously reducing their feed bill.

Simple schematic of the chicken management systems Anna has mentions in the book.  The bulk of the book is about the one on the right, since that's what has worked best for them.  Click graphic for larger version.

A hybrid chicken tractor/coop (troop?) can work well on relatively flat land and provides excellent protection from predators.   Mobile fencing can be used to provide a dynamic paddock pasture system outside the enclosed area.  Photo credit: Dad and Mom for top and bottom panel, respectively.

Anna covers considerations for sizing your pasture for your flock size and climate, locating your coop and paddocks, the variety of helpful pasture crops and why they're good (sample list at the end of this post), how to rotate through your paddocks (with seasonal variations), common mistakes that reduce the productivity of the pasture, how to maintain the pasture, and how to convert other types of land into a chicken pasture, with an emphasis on cover crops that have worked well for them.  How they have dealt with seasonal variation is one of the best values of this book, since pasture productivity can vary widely over the course of the year, and 'emergency release valves,' as Anna calls them, outside of the normal paddock rotation scheme are likely to be necessary, especially in winter.  Note, however, that Anna lives far enough south (in Virginia) that she can allow her chickens access to pasture pretty much year-round--if you have snow on the ground for most of the winter, you'll need to make additional arrangements.

Graphic of what pastured chickens have to eat over the course of the year.  Local results will vary; this is just a schematic (not to scale).  Also, forest pastures aren't covered in depth in the book, so that line in the top panel is representative mostly of when nuts fall from the trees and not a particular grazing pattern.  The relative fraction of diet from pasture will also vary a lot based on the specific system--for example, Anna's chickens top out at 30% of their diet from pasture, while Joel Salatin's chickens, which get a lot of protein from bugs in cow pies, forage up to 67% of their food.

One thing to note here is that Anna has built up her system without complementary livestock, so their rotational schedule might require more maintenance (in some respects) than a system with cows, sheep or goats, and their chicken feed bill is probably not reduced quite as much as it could be.  For example, Anna uses a lawnmower to keep unused paddocks in check during the spring when the pasture grows faster than the chickens can keep up with it.  Anna also notes near the end of the book that her chickens forage for up to 30% of their feed (but more typically 10-20%, or even slightly less for broilers), while Joel Salatin's chickens, which follow a herd of cows through his fields as 'pasture sanitation,' can forage up to 67% of their feed.  Anna doesn't seem too keen on the pasture sanitation route since they don't have a lot of open pasture room on their homestead, but I'm not sure I agree that other animals wouldn't be net beneficial.  Sure, Salatin's operation is much bigger, but it can be scaled down to one or two cows and a small flock of chickens on less than five acres of pasture.  In any case, the important point is that there are lots of ways to pasture your poultry and the fraction of feed the chickens find for themselves will vary depending on your specific situation, but almost everyone should be able to see some reduction in their feed bill.

In summary, I'd like to reiterate that this book is a great resource for anyone looking to create a poultry pasture, and I highly recommend it.  I also suggest following Anna's blog, The Walden Effect, to find out when the next volumes in the series will come out, and to follow further discussion of the books in this series.

Additional reading mentioned in the book:
Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman's Chicken Tractor
Harvey Ussery's The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
Carol Ekarius' Small-Scale Livestock Farming
Bill Murphy's Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence
Steve Solomon's The Intelligent Gardener
Gene Logsdon's All Flesh Is Grass
Anna's Weekend Homesteader
Anna's Homegrown Humus
Anna's Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook

Other related books:
Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profits
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens

Chicken pasture plants mentioned in the book:
Perennial Ryegrass
Creeping Bent
Crested Dog's Tail
Kentucky Bluegrass
Italian Ryegrass
Reed Canarygrass
Smooth Bromegrass
Big Bluestem
Little Bluestem
Side-oats Grama
Eastern Gamagrass
Ladino Clover
Red Clover
White Clover
Sorgum Sudangrass
Pearl Millet

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Chalkboard Labeling

Today's post starts with a question: what's the best way to combine the fourth-best part of elementary school, rustic interior decorating, and reusable storage containers?  That's right--labeling with chalkboard paint!  We like this method more than labeling with the commercial label makers because it's easier to "edit" the label if you change what's in the container and doesn't require a fancy tool or adhesive paper that would have to be thrown away.  We've had good luck with chalkboard labels on the two-gallon glass containers that store our staple foodstuffs like flour and sugar, and also on a scuffed-up dry-erase board that now displays our grocery and to-do lists next to the kitchen so we can easily remember them.  We decided to add chalkboard labels to some of our other containers (like wine bottles) using chalkboard paint, so we thought we'd document the process and show you how we did it!

Here's our starting point: formerly a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck that we "emptied," washed, and filled with our own blend of homemade elderberry-grape wine.  We defaced the label to reflect the bottle's current contents, vintage, and brewery location, but it doesn't look very classy.  Time to start fresh!
First step: remove the label(s).  A little hot water and the brown hard plastic scraper on the right worked pretty well.  Don't forget to write down any information you need from the label because the process takes several days.
Next, mark the points you want to be the corners of your label.  At this point, we realized that it would be hard to see dark marks on a bottle filled with dark liquid, so we decided to do another (empty) bottle, too.
If you have a lot of bottles to do that you want to do all uniformly, it might save a little time to make a series of templates so you don't have to measure each one.
Add tape around the dots you made, or affix your template to the bottle.  Make sure there are no gaps in the tape or template, or the paint will run through.  For example, the left side of the template in the picture above has a gap, so after the photo was taken, we put tape slightly inside the opening to close it up.
Now get out your chalkboard paint and pretty much follow the directions on the label.  If you want colors other than black, there are ways to do it.  Also, if you know of a more sustainable paint option, let us know!
It will probably take more than one coat.  There's a fine line between too thin and too thick (enough to drip), so you'll have to practice a little to get a feel for it--keep an eye on it to check for drips.  The one on the left is just about right, the one on the right is a little too thin.  It's really apparent here because the one on the left has a dark liquid in the bottle and is a little drier than the one on the right, but you get the idea.  Our can of paint said it needed three days before we could write on it.  So we waited...
Finally!  It's totally dry.  We took the tape off after one day.  Doesn't look to bad!  But, you can see that in a couple places where we weren't careful with the tape, the paint ran underneath a little bit.
It's not too hard to scrape the rogue paint off with something sharp.
That looks a little better!
Our paint's instructions said to coat the whole thing in a layer of chalk before writing on it for the first time.  You can see now that the one on the right isn't quite as even as the one on the left because we made the second coat of paint a little too thick.  But it should work OK for our purposes.
Remove the majority of the chalk layer with an eraser or a dry rag, and your labels are ready to go!  You can write whatever you'd like on them
You could paint the whole house if you want!  (But ask Katie first.)

Have you found another way to make good looking labels on label-needing things around your house?  Do you have an easier way to do chalkboard labels?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bonus Post: Reuben Strata!

If you have leftovers from your St. Patrick's Day feast like we did, you might be looking for something to do with extra corned beast, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and rye bread.  We thoroughly enjoyed our Reuben sandwiches, and were looking to extend the glory of the Reuben without having to put together such an elaborate sandwich every night for supper (yes, we really are that lazy busy).  Katie came to the brilliant realization that we had most of the ingredients for a strata, which we would typically make with ham, cheddar, and normal bread.  But why not make a Reuben-themed one?  Seemed like it could work!

The word 'strata' comes from the ancient Latin term meaning, 'out of the stratosphere,' indicating that this is a dish believed to come directly from heaven.  (Edit: Katie says, "Jake, you're full of baloney.  It's called strata because of the layers.")  Whatever the origin of the name, it's definitely a dish worth trying if you've got the right mix of leftovers.

Start with a layer of bread in the bottom of a 9" x 13" x 3" pan.  This recipe requires all 3" of height--if you use a shorter pan like we did, you'll have to make another mini-strata (which isn't all bad).  Make sure you cover every square inch of the bottom with bread, or you will get yelled at.
Shred ~1.25 pounds of Swiss cheese and 3 c. cooked corned beast.
On top of the bread, add layers of sauerkraut, corned beast, and Swiss cheese.  If you have a deep pan, try to use about half of each in the first layer.  If your pan is only 2" deep, use about a third.
Add a second layer each of bread, sauerkraut, beast, and cheese.  Make sure to put cheese on top, so it will get all melty and golden brown when you bake it.  You can see the second dish we had to use in order to fit everything in.
Make up a mixture of six beaten eggs, 3 c milk, and a half-teaspoon each of garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, salt, ground cloves, and dry mustard.  Pour the mixture as evenly as possible over the layers already in the cake pans, and refrigerate overnight (or at least several hours).  This recipe is modified from the original (best ever) ham strata recipe, which is a secret closely guarded by the Methodists of Waldo, WI.  If you want to know their recipe, join the church (quick, before Easter Sunday breakfast!) or wait until their cookbooks go on sale again. :-)
After the strata has hung out in your fridge for a while, bake it at 375 °F for 50-60 min until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean and the cheese is golden brown.
Let it cool for at least 10 minutes when it comes out of the oven if you can, or it will probably get mangled when you try to take the first piece out of the pan (we couldn't wait, we were too hungry).  Top with Thousand Island dressing if you like, and serve with leftover boiled veggies from cooking your corned beast.
Have you made a strata from leftovers before?  What else have you done with St. Patty's Day leftovers?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

2 loaves (9"x5"x4.5") of caraway rye "shortbread" (or less if the bread rose like it was supposed to), sliced
3 c. cooked and shredded corned beast
1.25 lb. shredded Swiss cheese
3 c. sauerkraut
6 eggs, beaten
3 c. milk, minus the juice from the sauerkraut
0.5 t. garlic powder
0.5 t. onion powder
0.5 t. ground black pepper
0.5 t. ground cloves
0.5 t. salt
0.5 t. ground mustard

Layer bread, sauerkraut, corned beast, and Swiss cheese in a 9" x 13" x 3" pan (or equivalent pan volume).  Mix eggs, milk, and spices together, pour evenly into pan.  Spices may fall to bottom of mixture, so re-mix frequently.  Chill overnight, or at least 6 hours.  Bake at 375 °F for 50-60 min until egg mixture is set (toothpick inserted in center comes out clean).

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cooking the Corned Beast

We decided to cook up our St. Patrick's Day feast last night (one day early) so we could blog about it in time for all (both) our loyal readers to see our results and replicate them (if we were successful) or improve on them (if we were not) for their own St. Paddy's Day meals.  The meal prep actually took most of the day, but it only required occasional tending so we were able to get plenty of other stuff done, too.  Our menu was Reuben sandwiches and pot vegetables, with bread pudding for dessert.  Even though traditional Irish cooking seems to be known more for entrees than sweet dishes, this is our house and there must be dessert. :-)

At the beginning of March, we started corning some venison to make Reubens this weekend.  On Friday, we started preparing the rest of the meal.  First up: making some caraway rye bread.  Katie had a recipe in mind using molasses to get the dark color, but it didn't rise like we hoped.  Jake thought he could do better, so yesterday he got his own batch going.  It didn't rise any better.  We were hoping to post our best recipe on here today, but it looks like we've got some fine-tuning to do.  However, we do have four loaves of delicious caraway rye bread that's just a little too short to brag about, but that will work fine for our Reubens!  The next thing to do was get the corned beast in the crock pot.  

Our preferred method is to remove the meat from the brine, set it in the crock pot with a few of the seasonings from the brine, and add pretty much the same spice mix again as we used for the brine (1 t each peppercorns, mustard, cloves, coriander, and two crushed bay leaves).
Then we gathered our favorite veggies for this dish: 4 stalks celery, 2.5 carrots, one large onion, two cloves garlic (or so), and a mess o' taters.
Chop 'em up coarsely.
Stuff 'em in the crock pot on top of the meat.  Fits like a glove!  Add 4 cups water and set it on high for 4-5 hrs until the taters are done all the way through.
When the taters are finally done, it turns into a treasure hunt.  Use a slotted spoon to scoop out the veggies until you find the meat.  Pull it out and check to make sure it's well-done.  (Normally we like our venison a little un-done in the middle, but because the brining conditions are conducive to botulism, it's probably a good idea to make sure this stuff is well-done--160 °F or more.) Make sure to get all the veggies, too.  And don't throw away the liquid--whatcha got there is a can o' pretty good broth!  Save it for cooking rice or noodles!
Here's the final product.  Our rye "shortbread," slathered with Katie's Thousand Island dressing (recipe coming soon), the sliced-up corned beast, a thick slab of Swiss cheese, and a generous layer of sauerkraut.  Simmered veggies on the side, and a cold beer (or glass of water) to wash it down.  There's 1.5 sandwiches each because we wanted to compare our two bread recipes (a little friendly spousal rivalry is always healthy, right?), and because we were really hungry after smelling this stuff cook all day.  OK, ok...Leinie's isn't an Irish beer, but it's all we had.  You could also wash it down with some green eggnog if you wanted, or save that to drink with the bread pudding for dessert.
This is where some of our extra rye shortbread went to.  Yes,  you can taste the caraway.  No, it's not bad at all. (Edit: Katie says, "Don't use caraway bread for this.")  We pretty much followed this recipe.  Nom nom coma commencing in

...many hours later...

How was your St. Patrick's Day meal?  Did you try our same menu, or make any modifications?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Green Eggs and Nog

Back in February, we posited that every month should have a holiday that can be rightfully celebrated with eggnog.  What should be that holiday in March? There's quite a few good options, including Middle Name Pride Day, Learn About Butterflies Day, and Bunsen Burner Day.  In the end, however, we had to go with St. Paddy's Day because...well, Poultry Day was too obvious, and if ham goes with green eggs, corned beast must go with green eggnog. (Right?)  OK, you could argue that this year, Easter is in March, and since eggnog is sold commercially around Easter, March is already covered.  However, Easter doesn't always fall in March, so we definitely need a backup.  And, we also wanted an excuse to make green eggnog.

The basic recipe is the same as for 'Hog Nog, but hold off on the spices this time around.  Once you have the eggs, milk, and sugar mixed together, set that mix aside and get out your spinach!  We recently saw a recipe for green frosting that uses spinach for color and apparently doesn't impart any flavor.  Apparently it's possible to borrow the chlorophyll color without getting the spinach flavor, too, which is pretty awesome.  So, we hypothesized that we could also apply it to our Nog!

Follow the procedures for 'Hog Nog, using the recipe below,  until you get to this point (egg yolks beaten, milk and sugar added and mixed in).  For the current recipe, we made a half recipe, so in the following pictures, the bowl will be half as full.
Measure out two cups of spinach (for our half recipe).
Mix the spinach and the Nog until it looks homogeneous (no little chunks of spinach floating around).  It will probably be nice and green and taste a little bit like spinach.  An immersion blender works nicely for this.  Add 1-2 teaspoons of peppermint extract (or peppermint taste) and stir again.  After adding the peppermint, we couldn't taste the spinach at all.
That's all there is too it!  This beverage is best enjoyed in our lucky canning jar mugs (we think).
6 Egg yolks
3 c milk
1/3 c sugar
2 c spinach
1-2 t peppermint extract

Beat egg yolks until bright yellow and stiff.  Add milk and sugar, mix well.  Add spinach and mix with immersion blender until homogeneous.  Add peppermint extract and mix well.

Disclaimer: This recipe uses raw eggs, which might contain harmful bacteria--consume at your own risk and don't sue us if you get sick!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Organic Farming, Swedish Style

Every once in a while, a paper gets published in the academic literature that makes readers (or at least, these readers) say, "what a cool set of experiments!"  Such was the case this week with an article published in the journal Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, Section B - Soil & Plant Science.  A team from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden took a look at the sustainability of organic agriculture on a small farm for a variety of livestock and fossil fuel demand scenarios.  The authors' test farm was 35 hectares (ha, 86.5 acre), consisting of 8 ha (19.8 acres) arable land, 5.5 ha (13.6 acres) meadow, 3.5 ha (8.5 acres) pasture, and 18 ha (44.5 acres) forest (of which 10.5 ha (25.9 acres) were also pastured).  The main goal was to to find the maximum number of people that could be supported from their organic test farm, and to see if the number changed significantly depending on livestock and fossil fuel scenario (you can see from the abstract in the link above that the livestock make more of a difference than the fossil fuel demand, as long as the fossil fuels are readily available).

Breakdown of how the test farm is distributed.  Areas are proportional but not necessarily representative of how the actual farm looks.  (If anyone wants to send us to Sweden to find out in person, please let us know in the comments section below!)  Arable land is divided into eight one-hectare (2.5 acre) plots.

The authors determined that the farm's demand for "tractive power," or "tasks that are normally done with a tractor," could be optimally met with one diesel-powered tractor and combine, three draft horses, or a combination of one tractor, one combine, and one draft horse.  In the last scenario, the tractor and combine would be used for high power-demand or time-sensitive tasks like plowing, threshing, manure spreading, and grain harvesting, while the horse would be used for most other tasks, like haying, harrowing, sowing, and vegetable harvesting.  Importantly, the combination of horse and diesel power allowed the farm to produce enough fuel on-farm to run the tractor and combine (although the authors don't seem very confident in their ability to produce biodiesel on a small scale, for some reason).  Since one goal was to keep the farm as a self-sufficient unit of production, the diesel-horse combination was especially preferred.

Another important point is that the only fossil fuel demand considered was for "tractive power."  The authors were able to validate this relatively narrow scope because they chose a crop rotation that heavily emphasized ley and green manures, such that additional fertilizers (other than the manure produced by their livestock) were unnecessary.  Specifically, the authors split their 8 ha of arable land into eight 1-ha (2.5 acre) plots, rotated through the following sequence:
  1. Alfalfa
  2. Rapeseed (similar to canola)
  3. Winter wheat undersown with Crimson clover
  4. Potatoes and other vegetables
  5. Buckwheat
  6. Oats, undersown with alfalfa
  7. Alfalfa, harvested twice
  8. Alfalfa, harvested three times
The yields obtained from these crops (in addition to the forage provided by the pasture and meadow) were used to determine the number of people and animals the farm could support.  The authors chose crops and animals with which they had experience and, thus, accurate baselines for feed consumption and growth rates.  They also made conservative assumptions on the food energy produced, assigning all vegetables to a "lettuce equivalent" and assuming their horses would eat like they were pregnant. (Seriously!)  Specifically, they chose two breeds of Swedish Mountain Cow (one large, one small), North Swedish draft horses, and unspecified breeds of sheep and poultry.  They constructed a model to determine how much livestock could be supported (after feeding the horses), assuming the cows and sheep would eat no grain and the chickens would eat waste grain supplemented with other feed (see below).  Because a cow requires many times more resources than a sheep (about 9.2 times in their system), the farm's production could support in some cases, for example, nineteen cows and seven sheep, but not twenty cows.  Thus, the authors considered a number of livestock scenarios:

  1. All large cows, with the remainder of forage going to sheep, plus chickens
  2. Same number of small cows, with the remainder of forage going to sheep, plus chickens
  3. No cows, all forage going to sheep, plus chickens
  4. All small cows, with the remainder of forage going to sheep, plus chickens
  5. Roughly equal balance of large cows and sheep, plus chickens
  6. Equal number of large and small cows, with the remainder of forage going to sheep, plus chickens

Crop scenario #6 was only considered for the combined horse and diesel powered fossil fuel scenario.  In terms of gross calorific food value (the metric used to determine the number of people the farm could support), crop scenario #1 came out on top for all three fossil fuel scenarios, but the calories came to a larger extent from milk and less from meat and eggs (to the tune of 12-13 liters of milk (over three gallons) per person per week).  Of course, it would be advisable to use some of that milk for butter, yogurt, cheese, etc.  On the other hand, if all of the non-vegetable calories shifted to meat and eggs (scenario #3), the number of people supported decreased by roughly a factor of two.  Of course, there are many other combinations of livestock and crops that could be used to vary milk-egg-meat ratio to produce meat more efficiently while yielding a reasonable amount of milk per person, but this study makes a good starting point.  Notably, in every case, per capita meat consumption well below the current global average was required.

Livestock considered in the various scenarios.  Clockwise from upper left: North Swedish horse, generic sheep, generic chicken, and Swedish Mountain Cows (Photo credit: Wikipedia for horse, sheep, chicken, and cows, respectively).  Generic photos of sheep and chicken used in part to protect their identity from the Swedish Chef.

As with any model, a number of assumptions were made.  Most were based on the conservative side of previous years' data from their research farm or nutrition values from previous studies, but one assumption that wasn't is worth mentioning.  That is, a significant fraction of the poultry feed was assumed to come from slaughter waste of the cows and sheep.  In normal operations, that probably isn't directly a good idea (or even legal).  However, the slaughter waste could be used to cultivate grubs and larvae that would make good chicken feed, so although the assumption is overly simple, it isn't entirely without merit.

One of the main conclusions of the article was that by extrapolating the results of their small organic farm system, it was possible to generate enough calories to feed seven billion people (and in the best cases, nine billion people) in each of their fossil fuel demand scenarios.  Such large extrapolations are always dangerous, but this particular claim that organic agriculture can feed the world has a lot going for it.  First, conservative estimates for yields were used, and the growing season in Uppsala, at nearly 60° N latitude (approximately the division between the northern and southern Canadian provinces), is shorter than in many other inhabited regions.  Second, the system was largely self-contained, not requiring external inputs of fertilizer or, in some cases, even fossil fuels. Although the production of rapeseed esters from the rapeseed oil (that is, biodiesel) would likely require fossil resources (for methanol to make methyl esters) or larger grain yields (to make ethanol for ethyl esters), there is an appreciable cushion of resource availability, at least for the present global population.  (For the authors' preferred scenario--combined horse and diesel power, livestock scenario #6--their farm could support 69 people compared to the 58 people required to extrapolate their results out to global scale.)  Thus, some grain could conceivably be used to produce ethanol and subsequently rapeseed ethyl esters for biodiesel, but the exact balance isn't clear from the article.  In any case, this article constitutes a very promising outlook for the future of organic farming, and the model is a useful starting point for scientists and engineers looking to plan out their homesteads (like we are)!

Have you done any similar calculations for your homestead, or do you know of any tools to help aspiring homesteaders do the same?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Egg Beater Butter

One of the classic first experiments of DIYism is to turn a jar of cream into a mound of tasty butter.  Why might you want to make your own butter?  Other than not having to get it from the store, making good use of your cream, and getting a pretty good workout if you make it manually, you don't have to worry about scary things like flame retardants that might be found in commercial butter.

The butter is made by a process called "inversion," which involves making a water-in-oil emulsion (butter) from an oil-in-water emulsion (cream).  Here is an infographic we made up to help understand the process (click on it for a larger view).  For a much more detailed discussion, see here, here, here, here, and here.

There are lots of ways to bring about this cream inversion, but most DIY instructions seem to focus on using an electric mixer (countertop, handheld, or stick style), or the old-fashioned jar-shaking method (no need for a Shakeweight!).  A few sources mention using a manual egg beater, but we couldn't find anyone who seems to have actually done it that way.  Since it's super easy to make whipped cream with an egg beater, we set out to show that butter wouldn't be too much extra work.  But as it turns out, we ended up learning a lesson in modern handheld appliance construction and ergonomics.  Fortunately, we still got butter in the end without using anything electronic!

One pint of heavy whipping cream, plus a hand-crank egg beater, ready to do battle.  The precious butterfat is locked inside a (nearly) impenetrable fortress of milk and protein.  That the more concentrated the butterfat is in the cream, the faster it will turn to butter.  For us, heavy whipping cream turns much quicker than the cream we skim off our milk.

After about five minutes of beating, we're almost at whipped cream stage.  Lots of air has been incorporated into the oil-in-water emulsion, making it harder for the butterfat particles to move out of the way of your beater.  If you want something to put on top of your 'Hog Nog, beat just a little more, then stop.
After about seven minutes, we're a little past prime whipped cream stage.  We're starting to break through the fat particle membranes and release the butterfat, as you can see in the slight yellowing of the cream.  The mix is getting pretty stiff now, and this is when we learned our lessons about egg beaters.  First, the polymer (plastic) gears attached to the beater arms were not meant to beat things this thick, and the gears started slipping.  You might be able to get a few batches out of a new one, but ours was pretty well-used already, and became mostly useless at this point.  Second, this style of egg beater doesn't give much leverage to push through the thick mixture, anyway.  What it really needs is a vertical handle you can hold on to and exert some force!
Victory!  After switching to the whisk, it took another 5-10 minutes of vigorous stirring to release enough butterfat to invert the emulsion.  We've finally got our butter and buttermilk.  Time to switch to a spoon and do some purification: work the butter back and forth in a bowl, squeezing the buttermilk out.  Pour off the buttermilk into a glass.
Take a break to drink the buttermilk and eat a cookie right away before anyone sees your liquid white gold-in-a-glass.  If Katie walks into the kitchen before you finish it, reluctantly offer her some because she made the cookie.
Keep working the butter until you can't get any more buttermilk to come out.  You might want to switch to your hands, since they're a little better squeezing tool than a spoon.  Once you can't squeeze any more out, rinse the butter under a trickle of very cold water (keep kneading it with your hands) until the liquid you squeeze out runs clear.  That helps to wash out any of the water-soluble compounds (like butyric acid) that make butter taste funky after a few days.
Work your trophy glob of butter into a custom-made two-stick butter mold.  We'll make a real mold somewhere down the line.  We got just under two sticks-worth from the pint of heavy cream

The optimal temperature to make butter at is somewhat nebulous.  At low temperatures, the membranes around the fat globules are harder to break.  For us, it takes a LOT longer if the cream is right out of the fridge.  At high temperatures, the inversion happens faster, but the yield can be lower because the butterfat is more soluble in the milk phase.   So, we just stick (ba-da-bum!) to keeping everything about room temperature, and it works fine.

How do you make butter in your kitchen?  Do you have a less labor-intensive non-electronic technique?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!